Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A Case for Immigration

I recently revisited John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. At the time when I first read it in High School, I failed to identify myself with any of the characters. After all, as a New Englander in the 21st century, what did I have in common with a family of the Great Depression, escaping famine and migrating west for a better life? Then, as I read the story with fresh eyes and poured through the pages like a man seeking truth in the bible, it finally dawned on me; the prejudice against the Joad’s had nothing to do with skin color, ethnicity or nationality but fear…fear of something being different.

Last week I sent out a position paper concerning Immigration to many of the readers of this blog. After finishing The Grapes of Wrath, I have decided to post it for its newfound relevance in my argument. While some of you might dispute my comparison of migrants and immigrants, I would argue their plights are much the same. Whether the Joad’s were “Okies or Dagos/Chinks/Kikes/Niggers or Spics, the bottom line was that they were not welcome where they went. The story of the Joad family is as much my family’s story as any. I would ask you to go back and read this novel, go back and listen to your ancestors. I am quite sure you will find many similarities.

Above all, no matter which side you stand on along the imaginary fence that separates “us,” from “them,” do not forget that we are all people. Immigrants are people, they deserve their dignity, let’s treat them with such. At the very least, they deserve our respect, for their voyage towards a better life here in America is admirable.

My dad’s sole advice to me growing up had always been “whatever you do in life, do it with compassion.” As I think about that last word and my feeble attempts to implement that mantra, I often ask myself if other parents offered the same suggestions to their kids. The more I hear the debate of immigration from the presidential candidates, the less I think that message was ever received.

Two weeks ago we celebrated a man whose very life was about the topic that my dad hammered into me. My lone tradition that day has been to go back and read his march on Washington “I have a dream speech” from 1963. The words said 20 some odd years before my birthday are as relevant to me now as they were back then. Simply put, like the bugle played during taps, they give me the chills, goose bumps or whatever it is you call it when the feeling you get is all too real to even fathom. As a Christian, I’d like to think that Dr. King is still speaking to us on issues such as immigration and pray that the presidential candidates shut up long enough to hear him out. I have never been one to state opinions for others, although if forced to speculate, I’d like to think that Dr. King would welcome any and all who journeyed towards the land of opportunity with open arms.

Dr. King talked vehemently about his dream. This vision did not begin nor end with him. This vision lives on through ever immigrant whose hope is embodied in his or her destination. After all, at the heart of every immigrants experience is a dream.

So many of you might be thinking, “So what’s your point Josh?” My point is that the debate on immigration while relevant is one without compassion. It is a debate more so on xenophobia than the strain on the economy or working class citizens. It is on par with the notion that “English should be the official language of the United States.” This suggestion is beyond ignorant and is less subtle than policy makers might assume. It directly targets Hispanics. As I recall reading, The Italians, Germans, etc…all spoke in their native tongues while living in their boroughs and sections of America.

Ok, let me pause. Some of you might be thinking (and yes I am very conscious of what others think) “Josh you were adopted, you’re Korean, of course you think this way.” Believe it or not, this issue is not personal in that sense, nor are others such as abortion. In my humble opinion, this issue ought not to even be partisan. In fact in both instances, I have been able to distance myself from the issue and look at it from a broader perspective whether it is from some 34 year old Mexican’s shoes standing at the border with his family, $20 in his pockets and a prayer or as a 17 year old girl who is pregnant. This issue is important to me because it is being misrepresented and even those who might think similarly to me are disingenuous at best.

The best way that I can make this argument is to tell you the story of two American heroes and their ties to a Wall.

As soon as the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Peter Pace said goodbye to the uniform he wore for all of his adult life, he made a trip to the Vietnam Memorial where he placed the stars which he had just retired on a index card and leaned it up against the name on the wall of a fallen comrade that read “these are not mine, these are yours,” and walked off without fanfare. That name was that of Lcpl Guido Farinaro. From the day that he lost that first man in his platoon, he vowed to stay in to honor his sacrifice. Forty years later, he still felt indebted.

If General Pace has an opinion on immigration, he’ll probably keep it to himself, fair enough. However, another man who fought in that same war and who happens to be running for President has made his opinion heard to the dislike of many in his party. John McCain often tells those who question his immigration policy to do go to the Vietnam Memorial and read the names on that wall. Rhetorically, he mentions that many of those names are Hispanic. Don’t tell him that Hispanics don’t sacrifice for our way of life.

John McCain is a border state Senator who must answer to his constituents on immigration every election. Why is it then that he favors a path to citizenship immigration policy that many critics have proclaimed as “amnesty to illegals?” My answer to that question is personal this time and comes from my experience in which I lived in San Angelo, Texas for a year.

I had never seen a bigger melting pot of people than I had in Texas. Sure, I had been to the big cities but in those places I saw less interaction among the populace and more segregation. In Texas, I’d ride horses on ranches owned by Hispanics with white employees and vice versa. I saw a mutual respect between the two groups that I wasn’t expecting. In fact, I pictured less tolerance and more bigotry to be honest. But to my surprise I saw one ton trucks with gun racks owned by Hispanics and whites, both of which wore cowboy boots and 10 gallon cowboy hats. Sure, there were the fair share of confederate flags and less inclusive groups around town, but beyond the anomalies there was an appreciation for what all workers in San Angelo had to offer. And yes, they all worked.

Another politician who has gone “against the tide,” in terms of his political party’s position happens to be our President. For all of the things that some may rebuke him for, I think in terms of immigration, he has allowed his compassion to fuel his policy. It may seem odd that I’ve given examples of two Republicans (soon to be three before this post is over). However, I mention these men and their affiliations because as I said, this issue crosses party lines. President Bush was a former border state Governor, who for the same reasons aforementioned, has separated himself from the “party line.” And his beliefs don’t end with himself but extend to his family as well. From his Hispanic nephew, to his brother JEB who had a phenomenal reputation among Hispanics in his governed state of Florida and even speaks fluent Spanish, so says my girlfriend.

This more compassionate immigration policy has less to with politics and votes than it does with what I would like to believe a deeper appreciation of the diversity that Spanish speaking people bring to this country. The immigrants are and have always been the back bone of the working force of this nation. Our economy would simply not flourish without these people working on our farms and manufacturing plants.

Anti-immigrant policymakers would have you believe that they are not racist and that they are merely protecting the American family and the American worker. They might even try to persuade you into thinking that their term immigrant is not synonymous with “Hispanics.” The truth of the matter is that Hispanics come to the US to work and Border States understand their need to fill voids in the job market. The truth is that many illegal’s are not criminals and those that are belong to gangs. Therefore, common-sense logic would be to go after gang’s right?

This post is getting long and for the most part I’m preaching to the choir; this I know. Nevertheless, I have to make my point for no other reason than because it weighs so deeply on my conscience and I hate sitting on the sidelines during a debate. America might be getting closer to Dr. King’s dream of uniting blacks and whites but perhaps farther from being the all inclusive country that America is destined to become. I don’t suggest that we open up the gates to allow every last person who wants to become a US citizen in. But on the same token, I can’t help but feel empathetic for those who pack up everything and risk it all just for the shot at the American Dream that Dr. King envisioned. Have we marginalized the dream to only mean for blacks and not Hispanics or not Muslims, Hindus, Asians, Frenchmen?!

I would like to believe that as the world leader that we still tend to hold some sort of influence despite our mishaps in foreign policy. I want to believe that we always feel as though we owe it to ourselves and to this country’s standards to pay our blessings forward to the next generation. The more we offer up policies depicting walls between countries, ID cards and National languages, the farther we stray from the ideals instilled in the document we call our “declaration of independence,” which was written by those who dared to flee from their own country trading for the very ideals (democracy) which we are said to be promoting in all parts of the world. Therefore, if we find it so necessary to enforce this principle on other nations to be more in our likeness why would we in turn, reject people who are trying to enter this country for the actual thing we impose?

Immigrants create competition for jobs, even at the cost of lower wages. Competition is what drives capitalism and free markets; it almost seems un-American to make the counter argument. They don’t explicitly ask for anything (healthcare, social security et al). Instead, they go about their business, trying to fly under the radar so that the government doesn’t catch on. They even go well below the speed limit as to not get a ticket. Yet we call them criminals.

Theodore Roosevelt was a great President. I would recommend people read Lion in the White House. Although his stance on an all inclusive immigration policy was questionable to many historians, I would at the very least call them compassionate. Anyways, the reason why I mention him is not because of his policies on immigration but rather a quote which I believe gives deeper insight into what he actually thought about American(s) and how we ought to think of ourselves.

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts “native” before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance. But if he is heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as any one else. “


Anonymous said...

Hey Josh, it's Jeremy. After reading this I felt compelled to say something, not out of some backlash type reaction but because I feel like there may have been some aspects of this topic that got overlooked. So here goes:

I noticed that you spoke only of "immigration" and never mentioned "illegal immigration". You referenced presidential candidates and their positions on immigration, but they are mostly taking positions on illegal immigration. I just couldn't abstain from posting a reply over the lack of distinction between the two. Just as no one would lump Tylenol and crack together as "drugs", there has to be a distinction. I'm all for legal immigration. It's a great thing! It's a shame, however, that our system of allowing people to enter the US legally isn't more efficient. Illegal immigration, though, is a completely different ballgame.

I have Hispanic family out in El Paso, TX and my Grandma (mi abuela) speaks Spanish as well as English. Growing up I was told story after story of immigrants coming to Chicago while my grandfather (other side of the fam) was a police officer there. Plenty of them were fleeing the spead of communism. He told me so many stories about what great citizens they became, they showed up wanting the American dream and worked long and hard to achieve it. I always loved those stories. I understand the human side of this issue and the empathy anyone could feel toward someone that wants a better future in the US. Many of those immigrants, however, assimilated into the US culture. Many today do not. The immigrants I heard tales of learned English and became neignors and friends to all around them. Maybe they still spoke their own language at home, ate the types of food they liked, danced to the type of music they liked, etc; and all of that is fine. But the bottom line is that they assimilated and they wanted badly for their children to do the same so they would have the best possible shot at a bright future in the US. Many of our current immigrants are not very big on assimilation. Learn English? Nowhere near the top of their priority list.

We have to respect the rule of law on the immigration issue though. We cannot let passionate arguments and a handful of tearjerking cases make the tough policy decisions for us. For every inspiring story one can be found of someone being here illegally, usually after being sent back multiple times, and committing horrible crimes. We have to look at the realistic impacts of a near-open border with people coming across by the millions unregulated. Why not let in 10 million Russians, Haitans, Mongolians, etc? There has to be a breaking point where we just won't be able to handle millions upon millions of unassimilated people. Did you ever ask an employ at the San Angelo Wal-Mart what aisle some product was on? On several occassions I did and got the blank "No English" stare. Even though I believe the US is a special country in many ways, imagine this happening in another country and if anyone there would tolerate it. Can you imagine a bar down in Monterrey, Mexico with staff members that didn't speak Spanish at all? How would the locals react? Should the bar owner be able to discriminate in his hiring against those who don't speak the local language? Questions like that are already being asked in the US and just wait to see how many court cases start to center around this.

This posting is starting to go long as well so let me try to wrap this up. I get the human empathy side of all this, I really do. I have nothing against Hispanics or anyone else that wants to come here in search of a better life. All I'm saying is that we have to do this in a rule of law fashion- a near-open border where X amount of people come and go as they please with no regulation is unacceptable to me. I'm sure on some level you get it that the current border situation is out of control and isn't good for those on either side. People shouldn't come here and "live in the shadows like criminals" and people shouldn't fell like they HAVE to come here and live in the shadows. No matter what approach we take to legal and illegal immigration it won't matter a bit without a border we can control and a system to regulate who is here doing what. I also just want those who come here to become Americans. The idea of still being a Mexican or Honduran that happens to be geo-located in the US doesn't work for me either- wear/cook/dance/sing/decorate/worship however you please. Any immigrant can do those things while still assimilating into his community. Any immigrant coming in should learn English (save the jokes about any typos in this post) to give himself the best possible shot at success here. Would you move to Russia and sternly refuse to learn Russian? How about France/French? And would you move to a new country and expect the natives to cater to you and stage protests if they didn't? I just don't like where this whole thing has the potential to go.

JoJo said...

Thanks for the great input here Jeremy. I appreciate this dialogue on a topic so controversial and polarizing. This reply that you have posted is after all the sole purpose of my blog, and its refreshing to hear an rebuttal so clearly argued. I want people to feel some kind of ownership over these issues, and while I will most certainly have a position on all of these topics that I discuss and bring up, I would hate for anyone to think that I would get the last word.

I'll leave it up to the other viewers to see what they all might have to say!

Thanks again and I look forward to reading more :)

Andy said...

I happened to cross your post on blogger this morning and I must say after reading all the anti-immigrant sentiments going back and forth, your view was refreshing and it gave me a little sense of hope. Maybe there are people out there who see the flaw in the way the debate is being conducted in this present day, people who see that there is no more compassion or respect for your fellow man, illegal or not.

It breaks my heart everytime I hear people make a distinction between illegal immigrants and legal ones. After all, we are all the same... immigrants. We were not born here, have left everything behind to come into this country for a better life. The difference between legal and illegal simply comes down to luck. Legal immigrants where lucky enough to find sponsorship, to find a citizen to marry, to have family members petition for them or to receive asylum. That is all. Four ways to earn legalization. Four. But what about for all those people who do not fit into these categories? There is no "line" to get into. There is no "home" to go back to. So what are they to do but stay here, work and earn a living? Do these people deserve the backlash we see propagated day after day in this country? No. They don't.

I hear arguments about the lack of assimilation, how people don't want to learn english, how they don't want to be a part of this nation because they carry the flags of their former countries proudly but I ask you this, has this country really made people feel welcomed? Has this country tried to integrate this population into it's system? No. These almighty "laws" cut english learning programs in all of our communities, they prevent people from seeking higher education, they propegate a situation of perpetual bondage to their illegality with no way out.

There is no process to earn legalization in this country. That's a myth. There is not process to assimilate either. Why people use that as any sort of rebutal is beyond me. If undocumented immigrants did not believe in the american ideal, they wouldn't have left their families, friends, homes to come here. They work hard at whatever job they may find and I assure you if they were given hope for a better legalized future then just merely staying undocumented all their lives, they would do everything in their power to earn it. But that chance has to be given to them.

I hear of people working 12 - 14 hours, trying to earn enough money to go to school, or some even to pay a citizen to marry them. To pay for marriage. Yes. That's how sad and desperate this situation has become!

It breaks my heart. It really does.

Anonymous said...

Once again, I just have to say something. I don't see the idea of wanting our laws respected and for people to not enter our country without permission as anti-immigrant. I also have a hard time seeing a lack of respect for the individual stemming from wanting people to stay in the country they presently live in.

I'm not sure how you can argue about there being no home to go back to, there had to a home to leave from before illegally crossing our border. People are not ending up here on accident, they are knowingly crossing our border illegally. We actually have some of the better, maybe not best, assimilated immigrant populations around when you compare us with many countries in Europe. Remember all the riots and fires in France a year or so ago? That was predominantly done by out of work, marginalized immigrants. I really think the "living in the shadows" line may be a bit overblown as well. Have you ever seen roadside billboards, street signs, advertisements, products on the shelf at Wal-Mart printed in Spanish? I have and I know that wasn't done for my benefit. The private sector in this country has gone to great lengths to cater to the immigrant population, the one that doesn't and won't learn English. "Press 1 to hear this message in English..."

I'm really not so sure the "American ideal" is what draws so many illegal immigrants. Our standard of lving, leaps and bounds beyond what many face in their home counties, seems to be a bigger draw to me. I'm sure there are untold measures being taken by many illegals to stay here. Buying a marriage does sound sad and desperate, it also sounds like a well thought out way of defeating our laws.

I have to wonder, with so many people OK with the 10-12 million illegals already here, what number they would ultimately e comfortable with. 15 million? 30 million? What if we just drop the whole "border" idea all together and invite every citizen of Mexico and Guatemala to the US? And since it would be wrong to impose our culture on them, we won't even ask them to learn English.

I'm only using this hyperbole to try to drive home the point that there has to come a point where we just can't keep absorbing new people at the rate we are right now. Our system for letting people in legally does need fixing but that is hardly an excuse for looking the other way as millions stream across our border.

P.S. In case you only read the original posting from Josh, you might want to read my earlier post above for some points I made before about seeing the human side of this whole issue.

JoJo said...

Since I started this discussion, I'm now finding it necessary for me to clarify my original post.

It's unlikely that we'll come to a group consensus on this one and that's alright. My argument on immigration was as Jeremy alluded to, based on my human side. I'm not a legislature, I don't work border security, I don't even live in a state where I'd really be affected by immigration. So how can you claim to have perspective right?

Well, that's a valid argument and I'd be willing to defend myself. Nevertheless, I simply wanted to awaken our collective conscience on an issue that does have a face to every single one of the 12 or so million illegal immigrants that are spoken about in such generalized ways.

Every time I hear candidates use the rhetoric of "they can get to the back of the line," I fail to see the compassion that was so central to my argument. I understand that a President is in a position to enforce laws, I get it. But that's not what I'm concerned about. There may very well come the time when the borders are completely closed and as a law abiding citizen I'll accept the law. I'm not for breaking laws, I'm for people recognizing the utility, work ethic and ideals that immigrants have brought and continue to bring to this nation.

I mentioned earlier that I don't have a lot of interaction with illegal immigrants and that's true. An illegal immigrant has never fired me, never attacked me (although we're so afraid of them), they have never robbed me, evicted me from my home, I've never seen them eliminate thousands of jobs first hand.

See it's very easy to blame the problems facing this country on "illegal immigration." Fear plays well on peoples minds. People rally around our flag (not that doing so is a bad thing) and really get behind the idea that its not our President or administration or legislatures or city officials doing us wrong bur rather these "illegals." Let's blame them for everything why not? Crumbling infrastructure, public schools, war spending, the economy, environment, when will it end? Sometimes we need to point the finger at ourselves and say 'we done it.'

Alright, I'm really playing devil's advocate here and I realize a lot of what I have written goes beyond fairness to the other side of the coin. If we are going to continue this, let's keep in mind that I'm not trying to set policy here. I'm not running for election, I am just pleasing and consulting my conscience on this one and its telling me 100% that we ought not to diminish the American ideal that has made this country so great in the first place.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Anonymous said...

Ahhhh, now that mkaes more sense. Highlighting the human side of the issue seems, now, to be exactly what you were doing in your original post. At first read though, I have to admit, it came across as an assertion that the human side was the only side or at least the most important side by far.

Even though I see the human side, I guess I'm just more of a 'enforce the law' side. Not to hit too close to home, but just think: how could a defense attorney be a reliable advocate for the accused if the laws he used to protect the accused were only going to be kinda enforced or just sorta recognized?

Anyway, glad to see the posting generated some interest. No one can afford not to at least give the other side a fair listen in an issue this important.

Andy said...


I agree with you 100% in the fact that laws have to be respected and yes, this country, like any other, should have a way to protect their borders. I never suggested having a whole country moving in lol. I believe in a nation of laws as well but the distinction is that there are laws that work, and laws that do not work. When laws do not work, they are not serving their purpose. They become ineffective and should therefore change. Everyone sees the rationale in that. However, the way that the debate is being handled, the way people want the "laws" to change is truly detrimental to the progress of this nation. There is a reason why these "laws" were designed the way they were designed and for the country to all of a sudden be up in arms, talking about deporting 12 million people is troubling. There's a reason why illegal immigration was allowed to continue decade after decade without any sort of enforcement or control and now the administration acts like this just happened, like now we have this problem and they never saw it coming. It's almost as if policy makers want to wash their hands away of the responsibility. Most people, if you ask around, didn't even care or realize anything about illegal immigration till the May 1st protest 2 years ago which fit in perfectly with the declining economy. Take that and the Sept 11 attacks and you have an almost seemless transition to what now is a process of scapegoating a whole set of people for all the problems this nation faces.

You're right. People are not ending up here by accident. There are so many things at work here that drive immigration, just like they drove the Irish and Italians and Chinesse immigrants to come. There is the labor shortage in their own countries, wide spread poverty and corruption in their lands and all of those issues aren't simply "their" issues. They are on a global scale and it's time the US really took a look at their foreign policy to see their role in these declining economies. There is also a huge demand for low cost labor in this country and that will only increase as the baby boomers head off to Florida to retire. And while you are correct in that we have assimilated many immigrant populations, it is also true that it wasn't an easy process. Even today you can go to Chinatown, or Little Italy here in NYC and see the fragmentation of cultures. You want something greek, then go to astoria and you will find it. So even thought they have merged into this nation, that process was not as seemless as you make it sound. They had to face racism, oppression, and violence in many ways. They too had to fight for a right to be respected and accepted. However, these groups were able to assimilate into their communities because they were made citizens. It was as easy as going to Ellis Island, picking your new American name and signing a large book. Done. Then they were able to participate in the democratic process of the nation they now lived in. With time, they were able to elect officials who looked out for their interests and had the power to change their role in this society through their hard work and participation. Undocumented immigrants want to do the same. The goal of undocumented people is to become legalized so they can become part of this nation in every sense of the word. Why not give those who have lived here for so long that opportunity? They're already so much part of us, why not absorb them fully and really let the assimilation process begin?

And on that account, I don't really think that America has a defined culture to impose on others. The definition of what being an "American" is, is ever changing. It changes each time a new idea is born, a new culture is brought it. It's like a huge can of paint where each person adds their color and the slow mixing of it creates many different hues. I can say there are a few ideals that everyone in this country believes in and that is that we are all very individualistic, that we believe in our own power to change our lives, that we believe in that lovely saying "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and many of us know that it takes hard work to get there and most of us are willing to work for it. Nothing is impossible (says me the dreamer). We also believe in equality, in the right for everyone to be respected and the debate is being handled in the worst way, using terms like "alien" which dehumanize people and rob them of their dignity.

There is a breaking point for everything and I think that more then anyone realizes, undocumented immigrants know that breaking point is now. They don't fancy being left alone in their illegality any longer, taking abuse from their employers without the ability to organize, or seeing all their kids without any sort of future ahead because they have no way of becoming legal. They want to be recognized, be accepted and I see nothing wrong with that. At the same time, the immigration issue isn't simply one of legalizing people that are already here. It's also about implementing measures to control future immigration and to talk about that without even touching foreign policy and how our policies with other nations should change is just plain stupid. Immigration reform without any talk of foreign policy is really a waste of time. But now i'm going into tangents....lol.

anyhows, sorry to have written this term paper for you and I do appreciate your comments and concerns. I wish more people would give some thought and time to this issue and that alone is a step in the right direction. After all, opening the discussion is the only way we are going to be able to understand each other and I welcome these conversations with anyone, no matter what their point of view is.

if you care to read more about this issue, please visit my blog as I have several pieces there on immigration and would love to hear some comments